Trekking The Havasupai Trail

HAVASUPAI INDIAN RESERVATION — It was just 9 a.m., and the 100-degree Arizona sun was on my back, creating a pool of sweat so big I’m pretty sure small children could swim in it.

I had been hiking for five hours and was on the final stretch of trail out of the Grand Canyon. I had just made it up what’s called the spine of the Havasu Falls Trail, a brutal, straight-up climb with not a single switchback to save you. I had become a four-legged animal, my trekking poles supporting me just as much as my legs as I pushed through the “I want to quit right now” swimming around in my head.

Finally, I finished the spine and reached my first switchback. It was the final chapter of an epic 10-mile journey. I was holding back tears — of what emotion I’m not even sure.

“You can do this,” I told myself. I thought about how far I had come, what I was about to accomplish and how much it meant to me: I’ve never been the fittest person, but by accomplishing this, my toughest hike ever, I was proving to myself just how strong I truly was.

Then suddenly, the moment was shattered in an instant by … the Barenaked Ladies.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This trek to Havasu Falls — a 100-foot turquoise waterfall in the middle of the Grand Canyon that drops into glistening pools below a canyon of red walls — happened because last year, my friend Sara came from Boston to visit me for my 30th birthday. We’ve learned how to stand-up paddle board on Lake Tahoe together, got blown away (literally) at Maroon Bells together and cycled San Francisco together. Now, for her 30th birthday, it was time for our biggest adventure together yet.

Havasu Falls is in the Grand Canyon, but it isn’t part of the national park. It’s on American Indian reservation, and permits (and a long trek) are required to camp there. We flew to Las Vegas first and didn’t want to haul a ton of gear, so we booked our hike with Wildland Trekking, which provided the gear, permits and meals.

After months of planning, Sara and I found ourselves in Flagstaff, Ariz., waiting for our orientation with Wildland to start. Sara and I were nervous. We’re both healthy 30-year-olds who work out regularly, but we were terrified to be paired with what we called “Team USA” –- the most fit people in the country, hikers who could haul up and down the canyon with ease.

After we met our fellow Havasu hikers, though, our worry dropped away. Our group was diverse and friendly, and we had a quick connection. Our guides, Tom and Jeff, debriefed us on the trip, and our fears were gone — it was just excitement.

The sun rises over the Havasu Falls Trailhead on July 13, 2017.
Sara Grant, The Denver PostThe sun rises over the Havasu Falls Trailhead on July 13, 2017.

At 3 a.m., we were all together again. We piled in a van and reached the trailhead a little past sunrise. After final sunscreen applications and a quick trekking pole lesson, it was time. With Tom at the front and Jeff at the back, one by one we descended into the canyon.

After just two miles, most of the vertical drop was over. From there, it was just walking — but walking over paths made up of rocks and dust in 100-degree blazing sun. We created our own soundtrack beneath the canyon walls as 14 pairs of feet and trekking poles navigated the loose rock.

Eight miles in, we entered Supai, the village of the Havasupai, which means “people of the blue green waters.” The Havasupai have occupied their remote village for more than 1,000 years. A handful of homes, a post office, a cafe and a small store make up the entire village. Supai is only accessible by foot, horse and helicopter. It feels like a world away.

We picked up our camping permit and glamorous pink access wristbands and were on our way. We still had two miles to hike.

I was marching along on autopilot when suddenly, Tom stopped.

“OK everyone, you can hear it. You’ve seen the pictures and now you are here. You are hearing Havasu Falls,” he said.

I could hear the rushing water as it hit the pools below. It wasn’t the raging torrent I imagined it would be. Instead, the sound was almost delicate.

We turned the corner and there it was, Havasu Falls. We had approach it from the top, so we were looking down upon the rushing turquoise in the middle of the desert. Water fell 100 feet into a pool of green unlike anything I’d ever seen. Stunned not only by what I was seeing but also what I had accomplished, I began to cry.

Havasu Falls.
Sara Grant, The Denver PostHavasu Falls.

We dropped our packs, stripped off our socks and shoes and walked straight into the cool water. My feet gripped smooth rocks as I waded further into the pool. The mist intensified, and a rainbow appeared. I sank onto a rock and became completely lost in that rainbow for a good 20 minutes. It was a feeling of calm I don’t think I have ever truly felt. Havasu truly is an oasis.

When we finally pulled ourselves out of the dream, we set up our tents and gathered around the table for our first family dinner. We shared stories over fajitas until it was time to clean up. Then, Dr. Tom and Dr. Jeff opened up shop to look at everyone’s sore, blistered feet before we all crawled into our homes for the night.

On Day Two, I woke up to the smell of sizzling bacon. We had the option to hike about seven total miles in and out of Beaver Falls, but we all wanted to rest our feet and legs for the big hike out of the canyon the next day.

Instead, we took a short walk, less than a mile, to Mooney Falls. Having established the night before that no one was terribly afraid of heights, we thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into.

We were greeted by a sign that read “Descend at your own risk,” with 200-foot-tall Mooney Falls rushing behind it. We looked down to see wet “steps,” and chains.

The sign high above Mooney Falls warns of the danger ahead.
Sara Grant, The Denver PostThe sign high above Mooney Falls warns of the danger ahead.

Sara began shaking. She wanted to turn around and go back. So she was the first to descend, Tom with her every step of the way. Person by person, foot hole to foot hole, we helped each other down, passing tips up the chain. Jeff held up the rear with The Ladies, as we called them, praying their 60-year-old hearts out all the way down.

The area around Havasu is full of water. In addition to Mooney, we spent the morning massaging our aching shoulders in mini waterfalls, jumping off rope swings, exploring secret water caves and hearing tales of the Havasupai afterlife. In the afternoon, we jumped into turquoise pools and found rooms beneath giant waterfalls near Mooney. It was my favorite day on the hike.

On Day Three, at 2:30 a.m. on the dot, Jeff made sure we were all up and ready to head out. We packed our bags, cleaned up our site, topped off our water and psyched ourselves up for what would be one of the most challenging days of our lives — at least, mine.

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The Ladies had blisters all over their feet and sore legs, so they were flying out of the canyon via helicopter, with their new best friend Jeff. Tom was stuck with the rest of us, hiking out just before 4 a.m. with headlamps. We passed back through the village, over the rock and sand, the same trail we had come down on, but everything felt different.

Before we knew it, we were taking our last stop before the vertical climb. By then the sun was up, and it was blazing. Our pack separated here as each person took on the challenge at his or her own pace. I brought up the rear.

I was past the spine and had started pounding up the switchbacks when I heard it.

“It’s beeeeeeeen one week since you looked at me.”

I looked down and I saw him — a man in his early 20s, no shirt, with a speaker hanging from his pack, cruising his way up the switchbacks I had just struggled up.

He was a card-carrying member of Team USA.

I am not going to let you take this moment from me, I thought. I was so close. I could see the top. I’d feared the climb out of the canyon, and I was almost there, if I could just keep my head in it a little longer.

“Five days since you smiled at me …”

I stopped in my tracks in the middle of my what felt like 200th switchback to let him pass. I stood there until I could no longer hear his music, and I could get back to nature the way God intended it: free of Barenaked Ladies.

Tom and another member of our group caught up. I told him the music was driving me crazy.

“There is only one song, and one moment, where I’m OK with music on this hike,” he said.

When we reached the final switchback, I learned what he meant.

“You guys did it!” Tom yelled, and right on cue: The theme from Rocky. I smiled from ear to ear.

I was finally out of the canyon. The first person I saw was Sara.

She looked at me, befuddled. “You look like you aren’t sweating at all,” she said.

Sure, I’ll go with that.

Wildland Trekking Company offers three- and four-day versions of the standard Havasu Falls hiking and camping tour for $975- $1,415. Gear, food and guides are included. 800-715-4453 or

Updated Aug. 28 at 3 p.m.: Because of a reporting error, this story has been updated to reflect the phone number for Wildland Trekking.

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